Cooking (and eating) seafood in a broth sounds a little, um, crazy. But if you like delicate, perfectly cooked fish in a rich, slightly spicy yet sweet tomato sauce, then it’s actually very, very sane. Add a couple slices of grilled or toasted crusty bread to soak up the excess broth, and it couldn’t make more sense. We came across the recipe in a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine and were intrigued to try it, especially when we discovered that “fish in crazy water” is a translation of the Italian “pesce all’acqua pazza.” If you know us, you’re familiar with our motto that “Everything is better in (or from) Italy.” So we couldn’t NOT try this dish. And we weren’t disappointed. Not only was it delicious, but the recipe is also easy to make (provided you have the time required to simmer the broth — about 45 minutes) for a light and healthy Mediterranean-style dinner.
The broth ingredients in the original recipe are simple: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, water and “chopped fresh red chile” (we weren’t sure what that was, so we used about 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes instead.)
The original recipe calls for 1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped. Because the tomato is a main component of this dish and tomatoes are not currently in season, we used high-quality canned tomatoes instead. We took a 28-ounce can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes, coarsely chopped them, then poured the juices from the can into the measuring cup and poured water through the empty can to rinse out (and use) all the leftover tomato juices until we had a combined total of 4 cups water and tomato juices.
Peel 4-5 cloves of garlic and slice them very thinly.
In a deep skillet, combine the tomatoes and water, garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, red pepper flakes and a large pinch of salt. Cover the skillet and simmer the broth over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes.
The recipe calls for red snapper fillets, which we used. Other types of fish would also work (although tilapia or other very delicate, thin fish might be a little tricky because they can break apart when you turn them over.) As we do with most fish, we cut out the dark part that runs down the middle of the fillet (the “blood line”) to help reduce any overly fishy taste.
The recipe specifies that the fish should be skin-on, perhaps to keep the fish from flaking or breaking apart as it cooks in the broth. Once the fish is cooked, the meat separates easily from the skin so you don’t have to eat the skin.
Another trick for reducing the fishy taste (can you tell that someone doesn’t prefer really fishy-tasting fish?) is to refrigerate it soaking in milk for about 20 minutes prior to cooking it. (Kudos to those of you who actually appreciate the taste of fish, but I’m not one of you. I do appreciate how good for you fish is, and that it should be a part of a healthy diet, so I will eat it. But Heaven forbid that it taste anything like fish!) If you soak the fish in milk, be sure to rinse off the fish and pat it dry with paper towels just prior to cooking it.
When you’re ready to cook the fish, uncover the skillet and turn up the heat to reduce the broth by about half.
Toast or grill 4 thick slices of sourdough bread (or whatever kind of bread you like.)
Add the fish, skin side up, to the crazy water and cook over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes. Using a couple of spatulas (or one of these), carefully turn the fillets over. Season with salt (more than you think) and continue to simmer until the fish is just cooked through — about 1-2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. You can tell the fish is done if it looks opaque and just barely begins to flake. Check for done-ness by using a fork or small knife to make a small cut into the thickest part of the biggest fish fillet.
To serve, place the bread in shallow bowls (we like having one piece of bread soak up the broth in the bottom and the other propped against the side to stay toasty for dipping), add the fish and spoon the broth all around. Somewhere between a soup, stew or fish “Veracruz-style,” this dish might be a bit dysfunctional in its characterization, but the only crazy thing about it is how good it tastes!